Game Preview: Kings at Celtics

BOSTON – The weather outside may be affecting travel plans across the country, but it won’t take a toll on basketball in Boston. The Boston Celtics (28-9) and Sacramento Kings (8-27) will play as scheduled at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Each team will enter tonight’s contest looking to avoid its third consecutive loss. The Celtics have not lost three in a row all season, so that would be unfamiliar territory for them. Sacramento, meanwhile, has grown quite accustomed to the losses and currently sits at the very bottom of the Western Conference standings.

One of the reasons Boston has lagged of late is because it hasn’t been able to hit the practice court to clean up its deficiencies. That changed yesterday when the C’s had a 90-minute session that featured plenty of physical play.

“We went pretty hard,” said Doc Rivers, who scripted the practice to include plenty of live, full court action.

While Boston did have the opportunity to shake off some rust on the practice court, it did so without Kevin Garnett. He continues to recover from a muscle strain in his lower right leg and is doubtful to play tonight. Rivers said that KG is “very close” to returning to the lineup but he essentially ruled out tonight as a return date.

On the other side of the ball tonight will be the Kings, who are 35 games into a deflating season. Many believed the franchise was on the rise when it was able to snag up Tyreke Evans, last year’s Rookie of the Year, and DeMarcus Cousins in the last two NBA Drafts. Those players have shown great promise, but the team hasn’t as a whole.

Speaking of Evans, who is Sacramento’s leading scorer at 17.2 PPG, he may make his return to the lineup tonight after missing the last two games with a sprained left ankle. He is listed on the Kings’ official Web site as a probable starter, so it sounds as if he will be on the court to take on the C’s.

Oddly enough, the Kings have increased their scoring dramatically since Evans tweaked the ankle in the early stages of Thursday’s loss to the Nuggets. Sacramento has scored at least 102 points in its last four games and put up a whopping 133 points in last night’s overtime loss to the Wizards in Washington. That’s quite a performance for a team that entered last night’s game averaging just 95.9 PPG this season. Last night’s scoring frenzy bumped that average all the way up to 97.0 PPG, which ranks 21st in the league.

The dramatic scoring increase has helped the Kings compete, but it hasn’t translated to any wins. Sacramento has allowed its opponents to score at least 108 points in each of its last four games, and two of those opponents scored at least 122 points. The iceberg tipped last night when Sacramento allowed Washington to score 136 points.

“It was exciting, if you like offense,” said Kings head coach Paul Westphal. “Neither team could stop the other one.”

That’s not a recipe for success, and the Kings know it. They have struggled mightily at the offensive end of the court all season long, shooting only 43.7 percent as a team, but their defense is now the main issue.

As shocking as it sounds, such a feeling is fresh in Boston’s mind. The Celtics are looking to bounce back from one of their worst defensive efforts in the last few years, as they allowed the Rockets to score 108 points on 52.7 percent shooting Monday night.

Rivers has been mentioning the defensive slippage he has seen out of his team while it hasn’t been able to practice. He even mentioned such before Monday’s game.

“It’s funny – before the game [Monday] I was talking about how badly we needed a practice and it showed its head (in the game),” Rivers said Tuesday afternoon.

Well, the C’s got that practice in on Tuesday, and the hope is that it will lead to a much better performance at both ends of the court tonight. Boston has been caught sleeping against some inferior opponents this season, and Rivers knows it’s going to be a challenge to get them excited for games like tonight’s. However, two straight losses followed by a good practice will likely have the C’s primed and ready to go tonight against the Kings.

Communication

The Celtics are not the same defensive team without Kevin Garnett on the floor. It’s as simple as that. Garnett is one of the most vocal players in the game, and that is especially true at the defensive end of the court. He is the leader of Boston’s defense not only because of his abilities, but because of his ability to communicate with his teammates.

Without KG on the floor, that communication has decreased dramatically. As Rivers said after Tuesday’s practice, the slightest increase in communication can have great results.

“I think [Houston] had three 3s in transition where all we had to do was point and talk and we would have been in the right spot,” said Rivers.

There was plenty of chatter during Tuesday’s practice and the hope is that it can carry over into tonight’s game. If it does, Boston is likely to string together an impressive defensive performance against one of the worst offensive teams in the league.

Force Long 2s

Monday night’s game against the Rockets seemed to go against all of the averages. The Celtics typically want their opponent to take as many shots as possible outside of the paint, and Houston did just that. The problem is that it seemed as if the Rockets made every one of them.

Houston scored plenty of points in its 108-102 win in the Garden, but only 22 of them came from inside the paint. That means the Rockets were making jumpers all night long, many of which were long 2-pointers.

That game was an anomaly. Boston would love to force Sacramento into similar shooting habits tonight. The Kings shoot only 43.7 percent from the field as a team, which ranks 26th in the NBA. The likelihood of them making a high percentage of long jumpers tonight is very, very low, so look for the C’s to attempt to force those shots as often as possible in this game.

Take Great Shots

One of the issues Boston has experienced with Garnett out of the lineup is a case of ball-sticking. The team hasn’t moved the ball the way it had been all season long, and that has resulted in many inefficient offensive possessions.

Throughout most of this season, the trend has been for many of the Celtics to pass up good shots to get great shots. That hasn’t been very common of late. Numerous players, particularly Glen Davis, have been taking shots simply because they are open. Rivers would prefer the team’s shots to be taken not just because players are open, but more so because those shots are great looks at the basket. We will see if Boston can return to the type of play that helped them rack up two consecutive 30-plus assist games last week.